New York Rangers heading into new management era

Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports /

With the 2016-17 season in the books, the New York Rangers can finally look ahead at the potential of a new era for the organization.

As many predicted, the New York Rangers were ultimately undone by a flawed roster, whose strengths were suppressed and problems exacerbated by a problematic head coach.

With the expansion draft looming and players to sign, it’s time for General Manager Jeff Gorton to make some decisions. His tenure thus far has had some good signs, like the signings of depth forwards last summer. His trade for Brendan Smith shows promise.

But in the end, this Rangers team was hamstrung by the final moves of the previous GM, Glen Sather. The twin anchors of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi (and especially their contracts) meant the Rangers defense was fatally flawed. Their no-movement clauses mean they must be protected in the expansion draft.

There are ways around this. Through Gorton’s savvy signings last summer, the Rangers have plenty of cap space. A buyout for either Girardi or Staal is mandatory at this point. Trading the other should be a priority, even if it means retaining some salary.

The fact of the matter is, it’s time for Gorton to make this team his own. It’s time to turn the page on the problems that held back the Rangers.

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A new D corps

The Rangers’ two playoff series this year shined a blinding light on half of the defensemen. While the pair of Brady Skjei and Brendan Smith was excellent, the other two pairs were…not.

The Staal-Nick Holden pair in particular was on the ice for three blown leads inside the last couple minutes of games, all of which the Rangers lost. Their numbers were downright atrocious this spring.

With Staal presumably either bought out or traded, Holden remains. But he might have a hard time cracking the roster next season.

This spring, Gorton signed both Neal Pionk and Alexei Bereglazov. Bereglazov, a 23-year-old Russian, is a shutdown defenseman in the mold of Brendan Smith. He’s defensively responsible, uses his body well along the boards, and can skate and move the puck.

Pionk, on the other hand, was a standout right-shooting offensive defenseman for the University of Minnesota-Duluth. With lots of interest around the league, the Rangers pulled off another NCAA free agent signing in Pionk, setting up some talent and scoring on the right side in the future.

Both Bereglazov and Pionk play the right side, so along with Smith, Holden is up against stiff competition. But the prevailing opinion is that the changes don’t end there.

Kevin Shattenkirk is a pending free agent, a bonafide top-pairing defenseman who can play with Ryan McDonagh. If he hits free agency, the Rangers are immediately frontrunners for his services. Washington can’t afford to pay him as well as their horde of free agents, and Shattenkirk doesn’t sound likely to return.

A top pair of Shattenkirk and McDonagh could unite the two best American defensemen. And with a defense made up entirely of swift skaters, puck movers, and responsible players, the Rangers will look like a completely different animal if Gorton makes the right moves.

Expanding horizons

The expansion draft will be another hurdle for the New York Rangers, as it’s likely they will lose one of their key depth forwards. Whether it’s 27-goal-scorer Michael Grabner, 4th line center Oscar Lindberg, or utility player Jesper Fast, it’s likely Las Vegas gets a steal.

Nick Holden is an option for the Golden Knights, as his regular season numbers look good on the surface. If Gorton can swing a trade of a pick or prospect to ensure Vegas takes Holden, the Rangers could be set for next season.

While signing Shattenkirk, buying out Staal or Holden, and re-signing all of their free agents (like RFA Mika Zibanejad) will be difficult, it’s very possible. Gorton’s moves in the past year have the Rangers with plenty of room below the salary cap.

Next: Lundqvist not to blame for Rangers' shortcomings

If all goes according to plan, it’s in the realm of possibility that Jeff Gorton puts his stamp on the Rangers with a trip back to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018.